Cindy Nkomo recalls with a smile the crazy early mornings with her father, when they excitedly switched on the television to watch the mastery of Mike Tyson at work in the boxing ring.
It was with equal anticipation that they’d take in the exploits of Dingaan Thobela, Welcome Ncita, Baby Jake Matlala and the like on a Saturday night. While that passion for the sport was there from a young age, Nkomo was unlikely to have had any inkling that she would one day head the nation’s boxing federation, having been named the acting chief executive of Boxing South Africa (BSA).
“My dad was a lover of soccer and boxing, and he would talk about boxing all the time. He used to wake me up to watch international fights, especially when Mike Tyson was fighting, and locally I would always be by his side on Saturday watching a fight. Those memories stayed with me and to date we share the same passion for the sport,” said Nkomo, who is still fulfilling her role as director of operations at the BSA in addition to taking on the duties of chief executive from 6 August.
“Of course, our national champions were some of my favourites. Dingaan Thobela, Welcome Ncita, Baby Jake, the Malingas. I had my international favourites as well, Mike Tyson, and I would always look forward to watching Chris Eubank. I loved him in and outside the ring. His entry into the ring, the celebration after a win and his dress style outside the ring… I’d love to meet him.”
South Africa’s golden age of boxing
Before coming to BSA in 2017, Nkomo worked as a key account manager at state-owned Transnet before joining a rail manufacturing company and then becoming the business development manager for an office furniture manufacturing and retail company. She may not have been working in the industry, but was always involved in sport.
“I have been doing some sport or the other for years. I have run five Comrades Marathons, four Two Oceans ultra marathons and countless marathons. So I love running, with the craziest thing to date being running a 161km race last year in June. It’s called the Washie 100 Miler. I used to be a 12 handicap golfer before the running bug took over. I’m also a gym bunny and enjoy aerobics, and recently took up boxing also to get a feel of what boxing training is like,” she said.
Why she believes she has what it takes
Becoming part of the BSA team three years ago was Nkomo’s first foray into the world of sports administration, and she loves it.
“No day is the same at Boxing SA, so there is always something interesting or new developing and I like that because I have a very active mind with lots of energy. I also love the direct impact our decisions have on our people. The better we do, the better the lives of our boxers,” said Nkomo.
“There is also a great feeling when attending a tournament and hearing the singing from the fans when their favourite boxers come to the ring. I get goosebumps every time and there have been days that I put the formalities aside and have joined in. I love it.”
Being a woman at the helm of a male-dominated sport has come with challenges, but Nkomo is not one to shy away from these hurdles.
“There have been a few challenges, not necessarily because I am a woman but because of being new to the administration of sport, and because of the passion and involvement that boxing lovers and licensees have for boxing.
“But there has sometimes been a general misconception that because I am a woman I cannot effectively administrate a sport that in the majority is dominated by males, and that since I don’t have a boxing background, specifically that I have never been a boxer, I am not capable of running administration of boxing. I laugh at this because you do not need to have been a criminal to be a good lawyer,” she said, adding that the likes of former BSA chairperson Ntambi Ravele, Ria Ledwaba, Carol Tshabalala and Kass Naidoo have inspired her.
“They broke the barriers in sport and showed us that it’s possible, and that your gender should not be a determination of your capabilities but rather what you know, your competencies.
The politics and presence of Zozibini Tunzi
“I think women have always been there, placed on some shelves in the dark and never allowed a voice or fair participation, whether in administration of actual participation on the ground. We have always been a support to the main, vice, deputy, etc. What I think is happening now is that women are slowly coming off those shelves and raising their voices and are being active in their involvement in sports administration. They are ‘taking up space’, to quote Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi.”
Like Tunzi, Nkomo grew up in the Eastern Cape town of Tsolo. “I was a village child, like most kids who grew up in that era and area. I herded cows with boys, hunted rats, fetched wood for cooking, fetched water from the river and played indigenous outdoors games, a lot. I loved my childhood and I have the best memories from those days.”
Taking boxing back to glory
Nkomo’s childhood experiences are a far cry from the hectic, day-to-day running of what certainly used to be one of South Africa’s favourite sports. Boxing experienced its last real surge in popularity in the 1990s, with the country boasting many world champions. But because of a series of administrative and financial issues, it has been on the decline ever since.
Nkomo is determined to get boxing back on track. She doesn’t go into detail about what caused the decline. “It’s a number of factors. But I am positive that with the right focus, the outlook of the sport can be turned around.”
What would be needed to achieve that? “Rebranding in terms of the public outlook, how we engage with the media, both BSA administration and licensees. We need more business-orientated promoters who are skilled and innovative. We definitely need a platform to showcase boxing and the talent we have in the country, therefore a broadcast deal will go a long way to setting the sport up for a ‘comeback’. With these things in place, I am positive that a sponsorship deal will follow. I am very confident. Boxing is not dead, it’s just not seen by the people. Ask boxing fans in East London, Limpopo and Gauteng.”
Juggling the roles of director of operations and acting chief executive, all while dealing with the global Covid-19 pandemic, has kept Nkomo busy in the past few months.
“Lockdown shut down the sport entirely and because we are a contact sport, we have been hit hardest as the last to return to action and events. We spent the time actioning some of our plans as an organisation, more office-related things such as reviewing policies, planning for the next financial year and even developing a digital system for licensing.
“It’s been busy but I’m coping fine for now, maybe because there are no tournaments at the moment. I have no illusion though that it will be challenging once we resume with events, and I will have to rely on the support and strength of my team in operations as well as the entire organisation. For now, I am mostly in meetings following up on pre-lockdown activities, planning for the remainder of the year and for the next financial year. I am also working closely with our stakeholders to create partnerships and see what opportunities are out there.”
As for the acting role becoming a permanent one in the future, Nkomo said: “I’m not even thinking of that. My work during this acting period should determine the way forward. I am more focused on delivery to our licensees and it should not matter what title I have. What I can say is that my heart is in the sport and I am at home at Boxing SA. I was born for this.”
That kind of attitude and determination can surely only be a good thing for boxing and its longed-for return to the sport Nkomo remembers relishing with her father all those years ago.